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I am currently doing a medical science research masters with a difficult supervisor. Due to two incidents of equipment malfunctions (equipment that I am using), I was stopped from doing any experiments for more than three months in total. During the three months I did almost nothing. Over the entire 6 months that I have been here, I have only had one month during which I was able to generate any sufficient results (the other months I was learning the technique). My supervisor rejected my proposal to switch to a new technique or use a different equipment set-up. What worries me is that I won't be able to gather sufficient results to write my thesis by July (which is the deadline), and I haven't even started my masters project.

I am wondering whether anybody else has similarly experienced this situation before and whether this is normal during your PhD i.e. doing absolutely nothing for 3 months or more due to the excuse of "equipment faults"? Do you just switch to a different experiment or part of the project which utilize different techniques? Could somebody please help me understand why my supervisor is doing this - is this normal for labs which lack funding?

What should I do? Should I make a formal complaint to the university about my masters supervisor? If I do so, I am afraid that the animosity between me and my supervisor will be beyond repair and he will not support me at all in finishing in time for the deadline. If it keeps on like this, I won't get enough results to sufficiently write the project thesis.

  • You say you're doing a master's and then ask if the situation is normal in a PhD. I don't think that would help you much: a three-month delay in a PhD is a much smaller fraction of the total time than a three-month delay in a master's degree. – David Richerby Mar 28 '15 at 20:41
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In experimental sciences, such incidents are unfortunately common. I do a lot of work in synthetic biology, for example, and it's not unusual to have a lab run into serious equipment or materials problems that significantly delay the work of the lab. For example, one lab I was working with had a critical machine start producing strange results and it took a couple of months, several corrupted experiments, more than one technician visit, and also a change of protocols in order to debug it.

If the lab you are in is actively working to fix the equipment issues, and it is just taking a long time, that would not be unusual. If they are not but are just neglecting it, then that is a very bad sign and you need to talk to the people who run your program to find out what to do.

In either case, you should make arrangements, either with your advisor or with the program heads, about how to adjust expectations given the equipment problems. Equipment issues should not be your problem or delay your graduation at a Masters level (Ph.D. is a different matter).

  • Thank you very much for your reply. The problem seems to be the latter- the equipment that was at fault needed to be shipped overseas for repairs and it has taken my supervisor at least 2 months to do this (although whether the equipment is still in his office at the monent I don't know). This is not particularly difficult... All he needed to do was to fill in some forms and to package this for shipping overseas... – anonymous masters student Mar 29 '15 at 13:30
  • @anonymousmastersstudent Then you really need to talk with the people in charge of your program (probably the department head), and look for a solution that will allow you to graduate. Remember: it's just a Masters thesis, and the requirement for such is generally that you demonstrate the ability to carry out a high-skilled technical project, not that you produce novel research. – jakebeal Mar 29 '15 at 13:34
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Get a new mentor. Although calendar days have gone by,you have not lost much time on your thesis project because you have not been allowed to get any experiments done. Find a new mentor in the department OR you can also go outside the department as long as that person has an adjunct or other appointment, or the dept. chair is willing to give them one.

Talk to the chair or some depts. will have a senior faculty assigned to herd students.

You can research funding sometimes through the university resources AND you can go direct to the NIH website to find who has funding and how long it lasts. Pick someone who has money, has a good track record with students and has students that have gone on to post-docs in good labs. This is more important than the exact research area, it is most important to get a good mentor who can imbue you with the skills to make it in the long run. Your current mentor is clearly NOT that.

Get a new mentor and get going! Good luck.

p.s. you could try to find another lab that will let you use their equipment, but just ask your self what is going to happen next in the current lab?

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    This seems to be the nuclear option. You don't think that discussing with the advisor would be a good first move? Find out why the advisor thinks that changing track is a bad idea? – David Richerby Mar 28 '15 at 20:42
  • This has apparently already been discussed "my supervisor rejected this proposal". I am also cuing on: 1. lack of funding in the lab, 2. thesis expected to be finished by July ( probably not going to happen at this point), 3. "difficult supervisor", a student should never be alone with the wolves. Thus my suggestion that instead of a "formal complaint" that the student talk to the chair or other appropriate dept. resource or the dean about how to get into a lab and get going on a project that won't take years. On a Master's a good solid one years work would be my expectation. – sgk Mar 28 '15 at 21:27
  • Thank you very much for your reply. The problem I haven't mentioned is that I have a PhD lined up starting in October, so in order to finish my masters in time I need to make sure that I have to submit my thesis by July with no other choice if I am able to complete the course. Therefore, I need to generate enough results to sufficiently write my thesis in 4 months. What should I do? – anonymous masters student Mar 29 '15 at 13:14
  • Again, you have got to talk to the chair, faculty assigned as research coordinator or dean ASAP. If your PhD program is at another institution then you may end up having to talk to the chair or head of the admissions committee there also, depending on what happens with your current masters track. Talking to the higher-ups in the department or school is perfectly reasonable and expectable. These are the persons that have control, power and responsibility to help you get things straightened out and going forward. – sgk Mar 29 '15 at 19:19

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